Proud Beggars and The Colors of Infamy
By Albert Cossery
Trans. Thomas Cushing and Alyson Waters
(NYRB, New Directions)
A reader can’t help but wonder how Albert Cossery might have greeted the Arab Spring. With glee, most likely. Followed immediately by despair. Which probably in its turn would have led right back again to glee.
In eight novels written over 60 years, the Cairo-born Cossery (1913-2008), who lived the bulk of his life in Paris and wrote in French, but set his fiction in the Middle East, evinced no shortage of contempt for the Egyptian establishment. Corrupt officials, vicious police, slimy businessmen—all make regular appearances in his work. More than anything, though, he was a connoisseur of human folly—a phenomenon he seemed to define so broadly as to include pretty much anything a person might ever do.
That attitude—which would probably seem nastier were Cossery not so consistently funny about it—is on full, flourishing display in two new editions of his work: Thomas Cushing’s newly reissued 1981 translation of his 1955 book Proud Beggars, and Alyson Waters’s new translation of his final effort, 1999’s The Colors of Infamy.
Both are crime stories, at least superficially—the former kicking off with a murder and the latter with a theft. Beggars concerns an ex-professor turned hash addict named Gohar who strangles a prostitute while looking for drug money in a withdrawal-induced haze. Infamy follows the exploits of young Cairo pickpocket Ossama and his mentor Nimr as they deal with a letter they’ve unwittingly stolen that’s linked to a government scandal.
But at heart, the books are comedies of manners, with Cossery taking as his (comically ambitious) target humanity writ large. He’s a keen observer of codes, both society’s and, perhaps more to the point, those that people assign themselves; and about these codes he is unrelentingly critical, mocking—sometimes gently, sometimes viciously—the pettiness and vanities that underpin them. At its best his writing embodies these delusions, meandering, circuitous passages turning in on themselves like his characters’ minds, as if searching for somewhere to hide:
Ever since Ossama had begun to frequent the posh districts in order to track down his victims among the capital’s grand thieves, the young man had distanced himself from Nimr’s sphere of activity and Nimr regretted, not without some rancor, the loss of such a promising pupil. Ossama’s intelligence in the trade that Nimr had taught him seemed to have extended well beyond his own instruction and this was unforgivable to a master who believed himself unsurpassable in his field.
Of course, unrelieved cynicism, like any single note, can grow monotonous after a while, and at times Cossery shades into a bland nihilism of sorts. What saves him is his great enthusiasm for his characters’ flaws, the obvious joy he takes in chronicling their stumbles across the page. He denies them dignity, but he gives them love. Their existence may be ugly and pointless, but it can be a pleasure all the same. “So much beauty in the world, so few eyes to see it,” Cossery once said. Or, as Beggars’ Gohar notes admiringly of his friend the poet-cum-drug dealer Yeghen, “Just to be alive was enough to make him happy.”